Friday, August 2, 2013

Close Encounters of the Bear Kind

"Bears expect you to speak to them in a calm voice," said the narrator on the safety video on Katmai National Park -- required viewing before visitors are allowed to hike the trails to world famous Brooks Falls. The advice made me laugh. Bears have expectations? Well, I'm sure I would have disappointed them had I tried to speak to the bears that were within ear shot during my week-long stay at Naknek River Lodge. Had I tried to speak my voice, undoubtedly, would have been a high-pitched squeal. I found it worked best to stay silent when encountering these brown bruins.
Bears fishing Brooks Falls

Many years ago I shared a quiet bend pool on the Brule River in Wisconsin with a black bear. Up until Alaska, that had been my most meaningful bear encounter. The black bear had silently emerged from the woods and was calmly drinking from the river when I heard his gentle slurps behind me. Disrupted from my fly casting trance, I turned to look at what I assumed would be a deer. I did my best to stay calm. I stood silently while the bear finished his drink and then wandered back into the woods. After breathing for the first time in what felt like minutes, I returned to what had brought me to the river.

Here is what I learned about brown bears during my week in Alaska:

  • They smell like a wet dog. The odor from their musk-laden, wet fur lingers along the bear trails long after they've headed downstream.
  • They are fast. One bear bounded down the bank, into the water and onto a salmon before I could even think of taking a picture. Had the bear been after me...
  • They, like me, are always looking for a better view of the fish. One did a tight-rope walk across a log to get a good view of the sockeyes hanging out in a run near the bank. Others resorted to sticking their heads in the water to get a better look.
  • They are efficient eaters. A brown bear captured, killed, and devoured a salmon at Brooks Falls in less than a few minutes while gulls and tourists looked on in amazement.
  • They are really, really big -- and some are really, really, really big.
  • Bears don't care nearly as much about us as we do about them, although they do seem to know they have the advantage and seem to enjoy pushing us out of good fishing spots.
  • Watching a mother bear with her cubs is both inspiring and terrifying. They are protective and loving mothers with a heavy emphasis on the protective part.
Bears should be far away in the background.
Of course, I got closest to a mother bear with two cubs. I had hiked downstream on Contact Creek, out of sight of our guide. (Not a smart move.) The fishing was good and I was having fun when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. About 20 yards away and across the river (thankfully) came a mother trailed by two junior-sized versions of mama. They looked to be more than a year old. At first I admired the way they strolled in single file down the trail. Then I thought of taking their pictures. Finally, I realized they were now about 10 yards away and moving fast. I backed out of the river away from the bears and walked briskly back toward the guide and my two colleagues. By the time I reached them, the mother bear was nearly directly across the bank from us. The young guide spoke to the bear in a firm, strong voice. He encouraged her to leave. A part of me wanted to laugh and a part of me wanted to flee. What would the four of us do if this several hundred pound beast that was taller than all of decided to leap into the water, cross the river in a few strides and take us on? Would a stern voice do the trick? Would four of us clustered together intimidate the bear? Would we stay together? Of course, I never learned the answer. The bear followed the guide's advice and headed into the woods.

By no means was that our only bear encounter, but it was the one that made me wish I had paid more attention to that safety video.

Always good to see a bear walking away

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